By John Ellison in Britain:
Plunderers against plunderers
Tuesday 23rd December 2014
At this time of year, thoughts stray to Christmas a century ago, precisely because of the horror and madness of the world war which by then had been widely predicted to be over, and which in fact had just begun.
After the justly celebrated labour movement anti-war demonstrations on August 2, Britain was swallowed up by patriotic fervour following the declaration of war two days later.
At the end of August, vivid, deliberately uncensored newspaper reports of severe damage to the British expeditionary force at Mons drew large numbers of volunteers into the army within days.
Yet in Glasgow the voice of socialist thinker-activist John Maclean, imprisoned for an anti-war speech made at this time, was not silenced. (Answering the rhetorical question “Why don’t you enlist?” he replied simply: “I have been enlisted for 15 years in the socialist army, and God damn all other armies.”)
In mid-September a piece by him appeared in the British Socialist Party’s paper Justice.
He wrote: “Even supposing Germany to blame, the motive force is not the ambitions of the Kaiser …but the profit of the plundering class of Germany. Colonial expansion was denied the Germans because the British, the Russians and the French had picked up most of the available ports of the world.
“What could the Germans do but build up an army and a navy that would hold its own against all comers? … Plunderers against plunderers, with the workers as pawns taking the murdering with right good will.”
The brutality of the bare casualty facts in those early months of the war numbs the mind and assaults the senses.
By the end of 1914, the Expeditionary Force ferried over to France in August had sustained 90,000 casualties, of which around a third were fatalities.
The people of colonial India, who had not been consulted about taking part in the war, had lost more than 2,000 soldiers by that date too.
Many thousands of wounded men were taken back across the Channel to hospitals. Most of Britain’s professional army in France was wiped out.
The British force had aided the much larger French army in denying the German forces a successful advance on Paris and in creating the long ragged line of the Western Front.
French losses — half a million. German losses — half a million.
Truth about the reality of the fighting was denied to the British people. Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty tells us that French losses of 300,000 men over 11 days in August were not reported in Britain until after the war’s end.
Unpublicised too were the comparable losses of ally Tsarist Russia — over 300,000 Russian troops were killed, wounded or taken prisoner during one month.
Gung-ho First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wrote to his wife in November a letter she could have virtuously turned over to the police as unpatriotic. The letter included the observation: “What would happen … if the armies suddenly and simultaneously went on strike and said some other method must be found of settling the dispute!”
In Britain the new Secretary for War, Lord Kitchener, who in 1898 had presided over the colonial mass killing in Sudan at Omdurman, both during and after the one-sided battle, was calling for huge numbers of volunteers, declaring their country needed them, while also telling the Cabinet that the war would last for three or four years.
The military killing machine’s achievements since the war’s outbreak — and its estimate of future requirements — were symbolised by falls in minimum height levels for recruits.
In August this was 5’8, by October it was 5’5, and soon after that it was down to 5’3.
Inevitably a major recruiting weapon was the shaming of those who shirked patriotism. It was not always effective.
The miners’ leader Robert Smillie, faced with one notorious recruiting poster which featured children asking their guilt-ridden civilian father what he had done in the “Great War” said his answer would be: “I tried to stop the bloody thing, my child.”
But even the anti-war Herald, edited by George Lansbury and reduced from a daily to a weekly paper, became quiet about the war until December, while Labour MP and future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, treated by the mainstream press as arrogantly anti-war, was actually both for and against it: a difficult position to defend without resorting to evasion and deception. So he resorted to evasion and deception.
Yet almost all of the Independent Labour Party’s national council, including Fenner Brockway, youthful editor of the Labour Leader, were anti-war. In October he wrote and dispatched letters to the German socialist leaders via neutral countries determined that positive contact should be established.
In Glasgow anti-war sentiments were strong among a local socialist leadership in which John Maclean was outstanding. In Bath Street, standing on a table on a Sunday evening towards the end of 1914, he spoke to a large and attentive gathering.
A witness later reported the power of the occasion to Maclean’s biographer. I quote: “The war, he told them, was not an accident. It was the continuation of the peaceful competition for trade and for markets already carried on between the powers before hostilities broke out … the main thing for them to know was that the real enemy was the employers, and that so long as … all the tools of wealth production were possessed by a small class of privileged people, then so long they would be slaves.”
Meanwhile, the radical liberal and mainly middle class Union of Democratic Control was set up in London to agitate against secret diplomacy and for the war’s early end.
In east London hundreds of women rallied around Sylvia Pankhurst’s Suffragette Federation and her anti-war paper The Woman’s Dreadnought – and around her Cost Price Restaurant, whose very title confronted profiteering at a time of rapidly rising prices.
Towards the end of December, Fenner Brockway’s October letter to German socialist leaders bore fruit. He received encouraging replies from Karl Liebknecht (who, to his eternal honour, had that month as a parliamentary deputy voted alone against war credits), Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. These confirmed — British socialists needed to hear it — the German socialist leaders’ antipathy to the war and their continued commitment to international socialism.
Then on Christmas Day and Boxing Day took place the spontaneous mass fraternisation between British and German soldiers from opposite trenches along the Western Front, potentially threatening an end to the conflict. Not surprisingly, Commander-in-Chief Sir John French (whose sister, Charlotte Despard remarkably had spoken against the war in Trafalgar Square on August 2, and was about to resume anti-war activity) forbade repetition.
A century ago, Germany was the underdog capitalist European country, pressing for parity with the British and French empires.
Today, with the United States as the world’s top dog country, and with Britain left with subservient ally status, the scramble for markets and to control resources, rulers and regions — with war as enforcer — goes on. The inseparability of capitalism and war is day by day murderously demonstrated.
The brave activism of Maclean, Brockway, Pankhurst and many others in Britain, and of their counterparts in Germany and elsewhere, reminds us of the other truth — that as long as capitalism and war continue, there can be no let-up in the struggle against both.